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If your relationship has hit a bump in the road, rest assured that it happens to just about every couple.

There’s no doubt you can iron out some of those bumps on your own. But sometimes things spiral out of control, and you just can’t find your way forward.

That’s where marriage counseling, also known as couples counseling, can help.

Yes, marriage counseling works. That’s not to say it can save every relationship. Whether it will work for you depends on several factors. The most important thing is that you’re both fully invested in the process.

Let’s look at some signs that marriage counseling might work for you, what the process is like, and how to get started.

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Not everyone in a relationship is married, so marriage counseling is also called couples counseling or relationship counseling. Whatever you call it, the goal is to work on improving the relationship together. In some cases, it also serves to clarify that the relationship is over.

Couples therapy can help with:

Couples counseling can also be done before marriage or if you’re separated.

Other psychological issues may also need to be addressed. Depending on the situation, this might involve separate individual sessions.

Nikki Young is a licensed marriage and family therapist and CEO of Catalyst Counseling Inc. in Modesto, California.

Young told Healthline that when you combine a qualified professional, committed participants, new skills, a fresh perspective, and a safe environment to explore sensitive topics, over time you may be able to:

  • create positive change in relational dynamics
  • rekindle passion and romance
  • heal trauma and wounds
  • equip for the future

Positive changes can occur when each partner is:

  • invested in the treatment process
  • willing to put in effort outside the therapy office
  • able to take ownership of their own role in the problem

“It absolutely can be effective,” Young said.

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), marriage therapy can be more effective than individual treatments for marital distress and conflict.

Young noted two important signs that counseling might work:

  • Both parties have a willingness to engage.
  • Both are committed to the therapy process.

Engagement in the therapy process works better when the couple has a good connection with their therapist, Young advised.

Signs that it might not work include:

  • When a member of the relationship is having an ongoing affair.
  • When one partner demonstrates a pattern of controlling, dominating, violent, or coercive behavior over the other.
  • One or both partners have a significant mental health or substance-use concern for which they’re not receiving treatment.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to couples counseling. And there are bound to be uncomfortable moments along the way.

Young explained that it depends on the therapist’s theoretical approach, as well as the concerns presented by the couple. One thing that must happen is the creation of an accepting, safe environment for each member of the relationship.

Partners may have very different views of the problem.

“A good therapist will help to make each person feel heard and understood. They will facilitate a safe experience for both,” Young said. This involves:

  • actively listening to both partners
  • reflecting and summarizing each individual’s experiences
  • interrupting detrimental communication patterns that happen during a session

“Factors such as sexuality, gender, or marital status often produce a hesitation to seek couples therapy for fear of judgement. To those who are gay, transgender, unmarried, or just plain ‘different’ in society’s eyes, it is critical that therapists relay acceptance and openness,” Young said.

To get the most out of therapy, it’s also important to let your therapist know if you have a condition such as:

The timeline varies from couple to couple. It may take a few sessions for the therapist to fully assess the issues. On average, most couples need about 12 sessions, though some need more and some need fewer.

“We can teach you all the skills in the world. But you must be willing to enact these in your day-to-day life to see change,” Young said. “There is no magic formula for how many sessions will be most effective in addressing the issue at hand. Each partnership is different.”

Some things to consider are:

  • relational cultures
  • communication styles
  • specific areas of concern
  • levels of investment
  • individual histories

After a thorough assessment, your therapist should be able to give you an idea of what to expect. A typical session lasts about 50 minutes.

The cost varies depending on where you live and the therapist’s level of education and experience. Prices range from $75 to $250 or more per session.

Many insurance policies may not cover marriage or couples counseling.

According to Young, therapists may incorporate aspects of several types of therapy for different issues.

Here are a few examples of therapeutic approaches to couples counseling:

Gottman couple therapy

The Gottman method is a structured, goal-oriented approach based on 40 years of research. Studies suggest that the Gottman approach can be an effective treatment to improve:

  • marital relationships
  • adjustment
  • intimacy

It all begins with each of you filling out an in-depth assessment. This will help the therapist choose specific interventions.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT)

EFT is intended as a short-term therapy with a focus on the present. It helps you learn how to express emotions and resolve conflict in a healthy way. Research shows that it’s an effective treatment that can improve marital satisfaction.

Bader-Pearson developmental model of couples therapy

This model looks at the developmental stages of each partner, as well as the developmental stage of the relationship. The stage of the relationship points the way toward specific interventions.

Behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has earned a reputation as the “gold standard” of psychotherapy. There’s a large body of research on its effectiveness.

CBT is based on the premise that there’s a link between thoughts and emotions, and between emotions and actions. Your therapist will help you replace negative patterns with positive ones. Versions of CBT include:

  • behavioral couple therapy (BCT)
  • traditional behavioral couple therapy (TBCT)
  • integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT)

Discernment counseling

Counseling doesn’t work unless both partners want the relationship to continue. Discernment counseling is for mixed-agenda couples or when neither party is sure what they want. Your therapist can help sort out your true feelings.

Online counseling works in much the same way as in-person therapy.

In a 2008 review, researchers performed a meta-analysis of online psychotherapeutic interventions. They concluded that online therapy can treat various problems differently, but effectively.

And in a 2020 study of online couples therapy, most clients expressed satisfaction and were comfortable with online therapy. It could be that some people feel more at ease in their own home versus a therapist’s office. Some couples reported that after a while, they stopped thinking about the camera at all. Others felt it created distance between them and the therapist.

You may have concerns about privacy during online sessions. You can request information about the platform and its security measures. You have a right to ensure that your expectations for privacy can be met.

Here are some resources to help you find the right therapist for you and your partner.

  • The AAMFT Therapist Locator includes professionals in the United States, Canada, and other countries.
  • Find a therapist who practices the Gottman Method.
  • Use the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists database.
  • Check out Talkspace online therapy for the LGBT community.
  • Try an app called Ayana to get matched with a culturally sensitive counselor.
  • Search the African American Therapists Directory.
  • Therapy for Latinx provides a directory of therapists who understand the needs of intersectional communities and those who feel marginalized.
  • Look through the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network Mental Health Practitioner Directory.
  • Find online couples therapy through Talkspace.
  • Find licensed professionals on the Regain online relationship counseling platform.

Marriage/couples counseling can help you work through conflicts and strengthen your bond. It’s most likely to be successful when both partners are willing and committed to the process. And online therapy can be as effective as in-person counseling.

Sessions usually last about 50 minutes and the average number of sessions is 12. Finding a qualified therapist that you both feel comfortable with is crucial to your success.

If you want to change your relationship dynamics or just build intimacy with the person you love, couples counseling could be your path forward.